Lofty hopes for world's highest

3 June 2015

FAR ABOVE the destruction and loss of life caused by the Nepal earthquake last month, climbers sheltering at the Everest Base Camp endured days of avalanches. Huddling together under tables, and taking it in turns to dig one another out of smothered tents.

The mountain itself was at the epicentre of another tremour last month, as the global press grew giddy following an announcement by China's state-owned media that the world's highest mountain might soon be tunnelled as part of a link to Nepal. The proposed extension to the Qinghai-Tibet high-speed rail line would link Lhasa in Tibet with Kathmandu in Nepal would likely require such a tunnel.

The project would face extreme challenges, and the existing line is already a record breaker. The highest point of the 1,956km route is already at 5,072m above sea level. This is the highest railway in the world, rising over 200m higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes. It also passes through the highest tunnel in the world (the Fenghuoshan Tunnel, 4,905m) and the longest plateau tunnel (the Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, 1,686m).

Political challenges have also been thrown at the scheme even at this early stage. India is reluctant for China to have more sway with neighbouring countries, while China claims that this project is being considered at Nepalese government's request.

And the United States government's policy of hemming in perceived Chinese expansionist ambitions has led Washington to declare the project a threat to regional security, the liberty of Tibet, and an environmental concern for the Himalayas.

These challenges aside, the growing excitement in the media apparently led an over-stimulated journalist to claim the tunnel would be complete by 2020, at which point Wang Menshu, chief engineer with the China Railway Tunnel Group decided to intervene, and give an interview to Chinese state media to douse the press with some reality.

Wang said that reported costs of CNY 100M (USD 16M) per kilometer were an underestimation of the complexity of the job, and contractors would not take the work. Fatal accidents on the existing line - on which over 100 workers died - were also a major concern to authorities. And at the heights required, there is also a need to provide oxygen for workers, which is an unusual logistical challenge.

The length of tunnels required has not been revealed due to the early state of the studies, but they have been described as 'very long' due to the regions that political leaders want to connect.

However, despite the challenges, China has been considering this project for nearly a decade, and Wang concedes that if the political and financial backing were there, it would of course be possible. Just not by 2020